Duterte in Vietnam: What to expect

Pia Ranada
Duterte in Vietnam: What to expect
Both the Philippines and Vietnam are claiming parts of the West Philippine Sea. Will Duterte's visit to Vietnam's capital herald new ways forward in the maritime dispute?

HANOI, Vietnam – Hanoi, Vietnam’s scooter-filled, coffee-loving capital is the setting for President Rodrigo Duterte’s 3rd trip abroad.

During his official visit from September 28 to 29 (Wednesday and Thursday), Duterte is expected to meet Filipinos and Vietnam’s highest officials to talk about, among other things, the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) dispute, trade, agriculture, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Economic Community.

What can we expect from this visit? 

Duterte’s schedule

The President’s first day will be devoted to Filipinos living in Vietnam.

Upon his arrival late in the afternoon, he will meet with Filipinos based in this country. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, there are 3,800 Filipinos living here. The first Filipinos to work in Vietnam were construction workers who were welcomed after Vietnam opened its economy through sweeping economic reforms in the 1980s. There are also plenty of English teachers here.

Duterte is also expected to meet with the Filipino-Vietnam business community. Most Filipino businesses here are involved in pharmaceuticals and the production and distribution of food products. You’d be surprised to find some well-known Filipino snack brands being sold in Vietnam convenience stores and groceries.

Thursday, Duterte’s second day, will be devoted to meeting Vietnamese officials.

He’ll start the day by laying a wreath at the Monument of National Heroes and Martyrs. He will then be officially welcomed at the State Palace where he will engage in bilateral talks with top Vietnamese officials.

After that, he’ll make separate courtesy calls on Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Vietnam Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong.

A state banquet will be held in Duterte’s honor before he departs for Manila late in the evening.

Philippine delegation

Duterte will be accompanied by Cabinet secretaries and senators.

The official delegation is comprised of: 

  • Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr
  • Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez
  • Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II
  • National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon
  • Senator Alan Peter Cayetano as Senate foreign relations committee chairperson 
  • Senator Francis Escudero as Senate banks & financial institutions committee chairperson 
  • Communications Secretary Martin Andanar
  • Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr
  • Philippine Ambassador to Vietnam Noel Servigon

Important issues up for discussion

West Philippine Sea 

Philippine Ambassador to Vietnam Noel Servigon said he expects Duterte and the Prime Minister to discuss “maritime cooperation,” an important issue for both countries because both are claiming parts of the West Philippine Sea. 

“We have suggested that the issue of maritime cooperation between our two countries would be part of the agenda of their meeting,” he said on Tuesday, September 27.

Both Vietnam and the Philippines have experienced aggression from China which is claiming 90% of the sea as its exclusive economic zone. Thus, fishermen of both countries have been harassed by Chinese vessels.

This is why “maritime cooperation” could include discussions on defense and national security. No wonder Duterte brought along National Security Adviser Esperon.

It’s timely that such a discussion take place now since both countries have new sets of leaders, including defense officials. Vietnam’s President, Tran Dai Quang, came into power only this April while Duterte was elected just a month later. New leaders likely mean new foreign and defense policies.

These new leaders are also expected to discuss another game-changing development: the historic Hague ruling that affirmed the Philippines’ claim over the West Philippine Sea and rejected China’s. 

Vietnamese leaders are likely curious on how the Duterte administration will use this ruling in the face of China’s continued reclamation activities. (READ: Duterte to China: You can’t avoid Hague ruling)

Of course, Vietnam will want to assert its claim to parts of the sea, a possible point of conflict with the Philippines. But there is also an opportunity to work together against China. What will Duterte, who favors strengthening ties with China, think about this option?

Despite the conflicting claims of Vietnam and the Philippines, Ambassador Servigon is hopeful that there is a way to resolve the maritime dispute without harming foreign relations. 

“We believe that the sea that divides us should be more of a bridge that unites both countries,” he said.

One aspect the Philippine embassy wants to highlight is “more cooperation in the field of fisheries.”

Trade, transnational crime, ASEAN

In 2015, almost half of the Philippines’ total rice imports came from Vietnam. Thus, agriculture is an important economic topic for both countries. But the Philippines is also looking to increase what it exports to Vietnam. 

Servigon said Vietnam’s growing economy is opening up new markets for Philippine products, particularly electronics.

Fighting crime, a topic close to Duterte’s heart, is another field where cooperation between the two nations is possible. Transnational crime like drug trafficking, smuggling of agricultural goods, wildlife and human trafficking, and cybercrime affect both countries.

“We shall also seek the ways to advance collaboration in the campaign against illegal drugs trade, consistent with the global of realizing an ASEAN Drug-Free Community,” said Duterte in a speech before he left for Hanoi.

Lastly, on the agenda is how both countries will participate in the ASEAN Economic Community. In early September, the chairmanship of the ASEAN was handed to Duterte since the Philippines will be the ASEAN Summit host in January 2017.

As chairman, Duterte is taking the lead in promoting the ASEAN Summit to other member countries and ensuring its fruitfulness. – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.